Anti-discrimination task force aims to ‘flatten the hate’

A new community task force launched in April supports Asian and Asian American students and scholars on campus.


Gridded image with "flatten the hate" written across the front and the translation in various languages around the border
Penn’s new task force supports Asian and Asian-American students, staff, and scholars.

By mid-March, #ChinaVirus and #WuhanVirus were trending on Twitter, and the FBI sent out a warning that there could be an uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes. In April, amid these national developments, the University launched the new Task Force on Supporting Asian and Asian American Students and Scholars at Penn, taking an active stand to affirm its commitment to diversity and anti-discrimination.

“We strongly support the Asian and Asian American members of our community,” says Provost Wendell Pritchett. “It is essential that our campus—and our city—offer an environment in which everyone can thrive and do their best work. I am grateful to the members of the task force who are advancing our shared goals of inclusion and equity, with initiatives that will benefit every member of our community in the years ahead.”

Penn is working to support all of its community members in meeting the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, including those who may experience bias, discrimination, abuse, and/or violence as a result. The task force was established by the Office of the Provost with representation from the Division of Public Safety, the Office of Government and Community Affairs, the Division of Human Resources, Penn Global, and the Office of the President, as well as a number of schools and centers. The task force’s ongoing initiatives include events, supportive messaging, and education around the University’s incident-reporting system.

Amy Gadsden, associate vice provost for global initiatives and one of the task force co-chairs, says, “We started to hear from many in our community—staff, students, and faculty—that they were experiencing a marked increase in discrimination and racism, and it was just unacceptable. Penn launched this task force to approach the problem comprehensively and over the long term.” 

The goal is “to raise awareness, to find a way to improve the situation, and to heal,” says task force member Anh Le of the School of Dental Medicine. 

“I am first-generation Vietnamese in the U.S. I came after the fall of Saigon,” Le says. “To me, it’s home. I came here as a refugee.” She says that when she arrived in her new country, she was committed to adapting and was also “discriminated against, attacked verbally, told to go back to my country. I broke down and cried but still thought maybe people don’t understand me; we will find common ground to come together as humans.”

Experiencing discrimination has made her “more sensitive and aware of what’s going on around me,” says Le. As chair of her department, Le says she is committed to fostering a supportive and inclusive academic community. “I intentionally keep my door open for them to meet with me and discuss,” she says, adding that she encourages others to be vocal about reporting bias and keeps leadership informed of any issues. 

Penn has two primary channels for reporting racial incidents or bias. The first is reporting the incident to Penn Police, who are able to pursue hate crime investigations and direct people to support resources. Maureen Rush, vice president for public safety, issued a letter in April regarding the increase of bias-motivated attacks toward Asian and Asian American communities, urging community members to report these incidents and offering support resources. Public Safety also submits annual statistics on hate crimes to the Department of Education through its Clery Annual Security Report

“Public Safety and our Special Services Department continue to provide support to affected members by responding to and investigating reported incidents, participating in support circles, attending active bystander training, and connecting victims with support resources both locally and globally,” says Kathleen Shields Anderson, executive director of operations and chief of staff for the Division of Public Safety and a co-chair of the task force.

The second channel is the bias incident reporting form with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which shares the information with University officials for subsequent monitoring, investigation, or resolution, which can result in disciplinary action.

As discrimination may occur off-campus, Penn is also working to spread awareness of city and state government agencies that are charged with investigating racial discrimination, including the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which both accept anonymous reports. “Regardless of the location where a member of our community has experienced such bias, we want them to report it,” Anderson says.

In July, the task force began a series of ongoing dialogues designed as guided “multilingual restorative practice circles” with listening and sharing sessions and held a kickoff event to its academic discussion series: Stopping the Hate and Starting to Heal: Living With/Through COVID19. Other events scheduled for August include a documentary screening and discussion of the film “9066 to 9/11: America's Concentration Camps, Then... And Now?”, produced by the Japanese-American National Museum and highlighting the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. “The idea is to raise awareness of the history of anti-Asian bias in America and use this as a way to talk about subsequent discrimination,” says Scott Moore, director of the Penn Global China Program.

Peter Van Do, director of the Pan-Asian American Community House, has also been involved in the task force. He is co-chairing the Stopping the Hate and Starting to Heal: Living With and Through the COVID-19 Pandemic series, which will continue through the summer and fall with programming geared towards undergraduate, graduate, professional, and postdoctoral students, as well as faculty, staff, and alumni. 

Van Do says, “Working with the task force has been inspiring during these tough and unpredictable times. With the University’s leadership and vision, the task force embodies the true spirit of teamwork and commitment for our community members.”

Le, who joined the task force in June, has been involved in the restorative circles as well. Many members of the Asian and Asian American communities repress their pain, she says. “Some of them are still in the phase that they are trying to forget and trying to move on. The pandemic crisis right now is really stirring the emotions that they want to forget. That anti-Asian sentiment has been there; it’s just been triggered by what’s going on globally and in the nation.”

Anti-Asian sentiment is “not a new phenomenon but one that was brought into sharp relief by the pandemic,” says Moore. “This is unfolding in the context of broader issues related to the treatment of people of color in the United States.” He says the task force is looking at ways to explore the intersectionality in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s not either/or; it’s both/and, and that’s the principle that we try to follow.”

Through the task force, “I hope that I can share my own experience so that I can help people navigate through this bumpy time and come out and look at the positive side,” Le says. “We can come together and bring so much academic excellence and continue to grow.

“This is home,” Le says. “We have to make it work.”